PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The government escort seemed troubled: Something had not gone according to plan.
A small group of visiting Americans had managed to talk with a North Korean whom officials had not selected in advance, a construction worker studying the works of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung at the national library.
After the Americans walked away, the construction worker warned their escort that he would report the official to higher authorities for "protecting" the foreigners as they asked questions. The escort came away disturbed in a way that makes sense only in a society where you can never be sure who's watching.
"The people control the state," the escort said. And a citizen's complaint could doom a career, even a life.
The incident is chilling enough on its face. But the more chilling fact about North Korea is that so much is choreographed for outsiders that one can never know exactly what to make of what one sees and hears.
When a young woman who works at Pyongyang's monument to the government-sponsored ideology called Juche declares that she would like to marry a man like the "genius" Kim Jong Il, are those her true feelings? When a North Korean army colonel at the Demilitarized Zone insists that the United States started the Korean War and remains the only obstacle preventing the reunification of Korea, does he believe that?
The government escort's fear of a construction worker seemed to offer a glimpse behind the curtain at the machinery of social control, but could that, too, have been part of the show?
The one unwavering fact about North Korea is that its citizens must live in a government-constructed reality, even if it contradicts what they might see for themselves. This alternate state has managed to survive the death of its creator, Kim Il Sung (president-for-eternity); the collapse of its original sponsor, the Soviet Union, and a famine in the 1990s that may have killed more than 2 million people, or about a tenth of its population.
Today North Korea may be a failed economy, but it is not a failed state. That is because more than perhaps any other government, this government exercises nearly total control over its people and shields them from foreign influence.
That, some foreigners in Pyongyang say, is one of the reasons the regime decided recently to expel some foreign aid workers despite a desperate need for food and medicines from the outside world. And that also complicates North Korea's diplomacy with the outside world such as the nuclear talks expected to resume soon, because any grand bargain that brings this Hermit Kingdom into the community of nations also risks exposing the country to more outsiders.
A recent three-day tour of Pyongyang and the Demilitarized Zone demonstrated the lengths to which the regime goes to maintain control over its people and its history, and made clear that this alternate reality cannot withstand too much contact with the outside world.
For example, in much of the rest of the world, Kim Jong Il is a brutal dictator who keeps his 22 million subjects imprisoned by a cult of personality. To Choe Hye Ok, 26, in the North Korean capital, he is something else entirely.
"He is a real genius," said Choe, the tour guide at a 558-foot tower honoring the government-sponsored national ideology of Juche. "You see, I'm not married yet," she says, blushing and laughing a little, "but I'm looking for the general Dear Leader's style. I like his style."
Inside North Korea, Kim is hailed in government propaganda as not only a wise leader, but a sort of superman: a great marksman who hits only bull's-eye after bull's-eye with his pistol, a gifted musician and writer, a brilliant theoretician and, as Choe testified to, a "noble man." It is impossible to say who believes all this and who does not, but it would seem difficult for the cult of the Dear Leader -- and therefore the legitimacy of the regime -- to survive a full opening to the outside world.
Over the past few months, Kim has invited thousands of visitors, including Americans, to come look at the country he runs, and at how well he controls it, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.
What the visitors see is in every sense a show. Six nights a week, tens of thousands of children, gymnasts and Korean People's Army soldiers have participated in meticulously choreographed performances that celebrate North Korea's version of its history, including the valiant struggle for liberty against the American imperialist aggressors in the "Fatherland Liberation War," as the Korean War is known here.
These performances go by the Korean name of "Arirang," named for a tragic Korean love story. But they are best understood by their more generic label, "mass games," which begins to suggest how, through hundreds of hours of practice and repetition, individuals become cogs in an operatic machine.
The few North Koreans whom visitors are allowed to encounter on their escorted travels in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country also play roles in a mass play, speaking in the shared language of the regime's propaganda.
This is especially true in Pyongyang, showcase of outsized buildings and monuments and wide avenues, where model schools and hospitals are immaculately appointed, and where the inhabitants seem relatively well-clothed and well-fed but are not to be spoken to by foreigners.
Only the most trusted can live in Pyongyang, which is generally populated by party members, and it is from these ranks that the government selects the "average" people who will interact with visitors.
At the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, a 1,500-bed model facility with state-of-the-art foreign equipment, visitors are told that any woman in the country is welcome. The two new mothers whom visitors met last week were well-prepared, sitting identically cross-legged on hospital beds, their hair nicely coiffed in buns, their babies peacefully resting in their perfectly wrapped blankets.
"In my country, women can give birth to their first child here, under the warm care of the great General Kim Jong Il," said one of the mothers, Som Yun Mi, 26, holding her 3-day-old daughter. When Som is asked what hopes she has for her daughter, she replied that she wants her "to be the good daughter of the great General Kim Jong Il."
At the Children's Palace, a school for gifted performers and the children of the elite, Rim So Yon, 12, wearing a Red Pioneer scarf and accompanying pin on her uniform, breathlessly and cheerfully described her school and the visits made there by Kim Il Sung (six in all) and Kim Jong Il (three).
She said she has unfortunately not met the younger Kim but very much hopes to someday, and she spoke admiringly of the elder Kim.
"Kim Il Sung's motto was valuing the children," she said in relentlessly cheerful, rapid-fire Korean. "He said children were the most precious beings in our country and our country belongs to the new generation."
The price of deviating from such demonstrations of loyalty can be terrible. North Korea is divided into three categories of people, the "core" loyalists at the top, the "wavering class" in the middle and the untrustworthy "hostile class" at the bottom of society.
Kim Il Sung waged bloody purges like Stalin and Mao, but he also refined the purging process into this accounting system, including dozens of subcategories, which brutally calculates the reliability of an entire family line, including whether parents or grandparents were landlords, lived in South Korea or failed to take up arms for the fatherland.
One perceived misstep by one member of a family -- unscripted contacts with foreigners may be enough to generate suspicion -- and the family risks being consigned to a less comfortable life, possibly to a prison camp depending on the offense, experts on Korea say.
Foreigners who work or have worked in Pyongyang say that their North Korean co-workers, who can be friendly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., simply do not engage them socially out of the office. Other co-workers might find it suspect; someone could get into trouble.
What the visitors to Pyongyang don't see from their tour buses is that even in this showcase city, so much more affluent than the rest of the country, residents can't count on running water for more than an hour or two a day, nor can they count on much electricity in the cold winter weeks to come.
Most residents of Pyongyang also can't live on their official salaries, which equate on the black market to maybe a dollar a month. They do whatever they can to make money in the informal economy, raising chickens and growing vegetables in apartments, lugging old furniture to sell at market, repairing bicycles on the side of the road.
The Pyongyang that visitors can see from the bus is one where residents don't appear to have the time or luxury to laugh and play; they are all walking or biking on the way somewhere, except for the soldiers riding the tops of trucks or the elites driving Mercedes Benzes or the lesser elites driving Toyotas and Nissans through the mostly quiet streets.
All of this activity proceeds under billboards praising Kim Il Sung and demonizing the American imperialist enemy. A dominant mythology in North Korea is that the United States started the Korean War in an attempt to occupy the peninsula and that the heroic Kim, who had liberated the country from the Japanese, led a defensive action to "liberate" South Korea and protect the homeland.
Of the many disillusioning moments that refugees face when they cross into China or make it to Seoul, learning that Kim started the war that killed as many as 3 million Koreans is one of the most jarring. It is not an assertion that Lt. Col. Kim Gwang Gil at the DMZ would accept.
"That's one of the untrue things the U.S. says about North Korea," Kim said in a government-sanctioned interview. "And that is one good example of its hostile policy toward North Korea."
The litany of U.S. crimes against North Korea is pervasive. Kim, like others here, maintains that the U.S. has more than 1,000 nuclear weapons in South Korea, an estimate that would have been close to the mark more than three decades ago, at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. pulled the last of its South Korean nuclear arsenal out of the peninsula in 1991, but what is fact on the southern side of the DMZ is often dismissed as fiction on the northern side.
"We have to defend ourselves. If they have nuclear weapons, we have to defend ourselves," Kim said. "If the U.S. withdraws their nuclear weapons and their soldiers in the southern territory, then we will certainly do away with nuclear weapons."
Standing less than 100 yards from the border with South Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed with the consent of the South Korean government, Kim spoke as if the U.S. troop presence is unwanted by both Koreas, not just his.
"It is obvious, just because of the U.S., one Korea has been divided into two for more than half a century, and we are leading a very tragic life," Kim said. "Maybe you don't understand our feelings about how sad and tragic we are."
More than 10 million Korean family members are divided from one another by the 38th parallel between North and South. Some limited reunions have taken place in recent years as relations between the two Koreas thawed into a "sunshine" policy of engagement, but most of those millions have little or no idea what became of their half-families on the other side.
"It has already been half a century. It's like a tragedy for me that I don't know what happened to my relatives in the south," said Col. Kang Ho Sop, 57, also at the DMZ. "I really hope that reunification will be fulfilled before I die, but whether it becomes reality depends completely on the U.S."
The theme of reunification runs strong through both Koreas, but it is laden with a particular ideological fervor in North Korea. The party line here, espoused by Kang and others, is that the two Koreas could reunite as a sort of confederacy of two states, keeping both political systems intact at first.
"We can have two leaders in two societies in the beginning, and above that we can have a kind of government that controls two societies," Kang said. "We can work it out together and discuss it step by step."
Kim Il Sung was said to dream wistfully of reunification in his dying days more than a decade ago, but his cult of personality could hardly seem to survive such a radical step, and neither then could his son's regime, which rules in the afterglow of that cult.
The legend of Kim Il Sung's rise to power is that he led the liberation of the country from Japanese colonization, thereby founding a free North Korea.
The truth, according to history books outside this country, is that this nation's revered Great Leader wasn't its liberator, though he did fight against the Japanese in guerrilla campaigns.
Kim was in the Soviet Union while Japan was losing the war in 1945 to the Allies, and he moved into the Korean peninsula with Soviet occupation troops before becoming the new country's leader, handpicked from relative obscurity by the Soviets. Moreover, Kim Jong Il, said by propaganda here to be born in a log cabin on a holy mountain in North Korea, is reported in histories elsewhere to have been born in the Soviet Union.
Relate such contradictions to North Koreans, though, and they may respond with angry or shocked denials. Whether or not they believe what they're saying, it says something about the fragility of the system.
The last stop for the small group of Americans last week was Kim Il Sung's birthplace in a suburban district of Pyongyang, where they were told more of the Kim family legend.
Afterward, Li Ryong Chol, the group's tour guide for the three-day visit, gave them a message to pass on to the world: "Just tell them, seeing is believing."